Indirect Evidence of E-mail Authenticity Not Enough in Architect’s Defamation Suit – IL ND (Part I of II)

An Illinois Federal court recently expanded on the reach of some common business torts, the grounds to vacate a default judgment, and the evidentiary vagaries of e-mail.

Strabala v. Zhang, 318 F.R.D. 81 (Ill. N.D. 2016), pits an architect against his former partners in a defamation and tortious interference suit based on accusations of unethical conduct and the diversion of partnership assets to foreign businesses.

The plaintiff alleged that two of the defendants e-mailed different businesses and plaintiff’s professional associates and falsely accused him of forging signatures, illegally using copyrighted software and misrepresenting his accomplishments and “tax fraud.”

After a default judgment entered against them, the former partners moved to vacate the judgment and separately moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s suit for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction and defective service of process.  The court vacated the default judgment and partially granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Some highlights of the court’s opinion:

Federal Rules 55 and 60 respectively allows a court to set aside a default order for good cause and a default judgment.  A judgment entered by a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case or personal jurisdiction over a defendant is void and must be set aside.  See FRCP 60(b)(4).  This furthers the law’s established policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of on technicalities.

A party seeking to vacate an entry of default prior to the entry of final judgment must show: (1) good cause for the default; (2) quick action to correct it; and (3) a meritorious defense to the complaint.  The court found that the defendants satisfied the three-prong standard to vacate the default.

E-mail Evidence: Foundational Rules

The defendants sought to offer two emails into evidence – one sent by the plaintiff, the other received by him.  To lay a foundation for documentary evidence, the proponent (here the defendants) must submit evidence “sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.”  FRE 901(a).  The foundational standard is lenient. The proponent must only make a prima facie showing of genuineness; it is up to the court or jury to decide whether the evidence is truly authentic.

Here, the defendants failed to lay a foundation for the e-mails.  First, the plaintiff – variously, author and recipient of the e-mails – testified that he believed the e-mails may have been altered and did not concede the e-mails’ authenticity.

Next, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that the e-mails were self-authenticating under FRE 902(7) – the rule governing inscriptions, signs, tags, or labels that indicate business origin, ownership, or control.

The court found that plaintiff’s electronic e-mail signature and a company letterhead logo were not “trade inscriptions” within the meaning of Rule 902(7) citing to a Seventh Circuit case holding that a trade inscription on the cover of an owner’s manual does not authenticate the contents of the manual.

Plaintiff presented evidence in his affidavit (declaration) rebutting the presumptive authenticity of the e-mails by calling into question whether he signed one e-mail electronically and by stating that the e-mails were on his personal laptop’s hard drive, a device plaintiff claimed the defendants stole from him.  The court held that if the e-mails did originate from plaintiff’s stolen laptop, the evidence would be inadmissible.

Q: So what kind of evidence would have satisfied the court?

A: Direct proof of authenticity.

Q: What would qualify as “direct proof”?

A: Testimony by Plaintiff or the other sender or someone who witnessed the sending of the emails who could attest that the questioned e-mails are the actual, unchanged emails sent by the authors.

The court noted that indirect evidence of authenticity could also work.  Indirect evidence typically involves testimony from “someone who personally retrieved the e-mail from the computer to which the e-mail was allegedly sent” together with other circumstantial evidence such as the e-mail address in the header and the substance of the email itself.

Here, the court found the defendants’ indirect evidence was too flimsy. It noted that the defendants were interested parties and accused of theft (plaintiff claimed they stole his laptop).  The court also held that the defendants’ self-serving testimony that they didn’t alter the e-mails wasn’t enough to establish their authenticity especially in light of plaintiff’s claims that the defendants stole his laptop and that the e-mails appeared to have been changed.

In the end, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion to strike the two e-mail exhibits to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Take-aways:

Given the rampantness of e-mail, this case is instructive for litigators since most cases will involve at least some e-mail evidence.  The case also underscores that while the standard for evidence authenticity is low, it still has some teeth.

Here, the plaintiff’s belief that the emails offered against him were doctored coupled with the fact that the e-mails’ source was stolen property (a laptop), was enough to create a question as to whether the e-mails were authentic.

The next post summarizes the Court’s exhaustive analysis of subject matter and personal jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statue and Federal due process standards.

Evidence Rules Interplay – Authenticating Facebook Posts and YouTube Videos

Evidence Rules 901, 803 and 902 respectively govern authentication generally, the foundation rules for business records, and “self-authenticating” documents at trial.

The Fourth Circuit recently examined the interplay between these rules in the context of a Federal conspiracy trial.  In  United States v. Hassan, 742 F.3d 104 (4th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014), the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury’s conviction of two defendants based in part on inflammatory, jihad-inspired Facebook posts and YouTube training videos attributed to them.

The Court first held that the threshold showing for authenticity under Rule 901 is low.  All that’s required is the offering party must make a prima facie showing that the evidence is what the party claims it is.  FRE 901(a).  In the context of business records, Rule 902(11) self-authenticates these records where they satisfy the strictures of Rule 803(6) based on a custodian’s certification.  Rule 803(6), in turn, requires the offering party to establish that (a) the records were made at or near the time (of the recorded activity) by – or from information transmitted by  – someone with knowledge, (b) that the records were “kept in the course of a regularly conducted activity or business”; and (c) that making the records was a regular practice of the business. FRE 803(6)(a)-(c).

Applying these rules, the Court held that certifications from Google’s and Facebook’s records custodians established the foundation for the Facebook “wall” posts and YouTube terror training videos.  In addition, the Court found that the prosecution sufficiently connected the two conspiracy defendants to the Facebook posts and YouTube videos by tracing them to internet protocol addresses that linked both defendants to the particular Facebook and YouTube accounts that generated the posts.

Notes: For a more detailed discussion of Hassan as well as an excellent resource on social media evidence developments, see the Federal Evidence Review (http://federalevidence.com/blog/2014/february/authenticating-facebook-and-google-records)

 

Multi-Year Request for Facebook Activity Too Broad – Illinois Federal Court


Ye v. Veissman (1:14-cv-01531)(Memorandum Opinion and Order) examines the scope of Facebook page discovery requests in the context of a wrongful death suit.

There, the plaintiff, whose daughter was killed in a freak traffic accident as she walked on a downtown Chicago street, sued the responsible trucking company and driver for wrongful death and tried to recover for mental anguish resulting from the accident. 

To probe the depths of the plaintiff’s claimed mental malaise, the defendants sought discovery of the decedent’s Facebook communications going back seven years before the accident.  The plaintiff refused on the grounds of relevance and overbreadth (“it’s a fishing expedition”) and the defendants moved to compel the material.

Denying the defendants’ motion, the Court answered important questions on when social media evidence is relevant to a mental distress claim and the case starkly illustrates the importance of narrowly tailoring discovery requests in this computer-drenched society.

The Federal Discovery Rules and Facebook Data

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) allows discovery into any nonprivileged matter relevant to a party’s claim or defense that is proportional to the needs of the case.

Facebook discovery requests can present thorny logistical challenges since  the amount of discoverable information is voluminous, data is retained for a long time and the number of people with whom a given Facebook subscriber communicates is potentially limitless.

In spite of these difficulties, social media evidence is still discoverable so long as the requested information meets the test of relevance.  The Illinois and Federal rules of evidence define relevant evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”  See Illinois Evidence Rule 401.

The Ye court noted that while “everything posted on social media can reflect a person’s emotional state of mind” at any given snapshot of time, a plaintiff’s injection of his state of mind does not give a requesting party with a “generalized right to rummage at will through [social media] information.”

Seven Years of Facebook Data = Too Broad

Finding the defendants’ discovery requests too broad, the Court noted that the amended discovery rules, effective since December 2015, limit the scope of relevant evidence and required that discovery be proportional to the needs of a given case.

The court allowed that since plaintiff’s damage claims were nebulous by nature – they included mental suffering, grief, sorrow, loss of society, companionship, and consortium – some social media discovery was clearly permitted (and relevant).  This was because the discovery requests sought to shed light on the plaintiff’s mental state and his damages claims.

The court found that “[c]ertainly some social media content during the time period prior to death will be relevant”, this didn’t give the defendants a green light to request unlimited Facebook information.  The court found the seven-year request overbroad as it wasn’t confined to a narrower pre-accident time span.

The extensive request for Facebook data also exceeded relevance restrictions since defendants sought communications between the decedent and third parties who had nothing to do with the accident or the lawsuit.  According to the court, if the discovery requests were pruned to only include communications between the decedent and her immediate family, the requests would likely be focused enough to meet the discovery rules’ relevance and proportionality tests.

However, as the requests currently stood, the minimal relevance of the decedent’s Facebook communications was outweighed by the burden to the plaintiff in producing the data.

To support its findings, the Court cited liberally from recent Federal cases in Indiana and California that found Facebook discovery requests spanning five years (the Indiana case) and seven years (Cal.) too broad under Rule 26.

Afterwords:

This opinion is a good example of a court grappling with the discoverability of social media evidence in a case where a plaintiff’s mental state is clearly at issue.  Like so often, the discovery decision distills to a balancing test: the Court weighs the possible relevance of the requested information against the time, money and energy burden to the plaintiff in producing the information.

While some latitude is allowed in discovery requests, it’s clear from this case and others like it, that discovery requests have limits.  Where the burden of responding to Facebook discovery outweighs the possible relevance of the requests, a court will order the requesting party to constrict its requests.